Case Study #4 – Building housing for veterans

Building Housing for St Paul Area Veterans

This case study is based on information provided by Sean Hart and Becky Brink Ray of Goodwill/Easter Seals of Minnesota (GESMN), and Tony Zahradke of GAP School in St Paul, in partnership with the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans (MACV) Interviews took place October- November 2023.

The project consists of two buildings.  The first will have 10, one-bedroom apartments for low-income veterans, and veterans experiencing homelessness.  Each unit has its own restroom. Each first-floor apartment is ADA compliant.  The building next door will have a washer, dryer, exercise area, meeting room and MACV offices.  The goal is for veterans to move to more permanent housing eventually but there is no required timetable for this.  The project is unusual because young people are constructing two buildings next to each other.


This building above will house 10, one-bedroom apartments, 5 on each floor.


This building will include a washer/driver, meeting room, exercise area & MACV offices.


Inside the building that will house 10 apartments,  as of late November, 2023.


What background/work experience prepared you to teach/run this program?

Sean Hart:  Sean serves as project manager/career navigator for  GESMN.  He has done construction his whole life.  He helped build houses from ground up with my father.  Sean has been working in construction or as sales manager for 20 years.  His father was a carpenter/teacher for 5 years; Sean has a MBA in construction management.  He also is also qualified licensed contractor in Minnesota. 

Becky Brink Ray: Becky serves as  Workforce Development Director for GESM’s Career and Training and Education programs.  Her whole career has been in workforce development.   She has worked for 17 years with GWES.  Before that she worked for another non-profit.  She develops sector training programs around employers’ needs.  She earned a BA in Counseling and a MA in business.

Becky and Sean


Tony Zahradke:  Tony is the construction teacher at GAP School in St Paul.  He has taught for 20 years in St Paul with at-risk and immigrant youth.  Worked both in St Paul Public Schools and at GAP (a contract alternative school).  Tony also spent five years working in construction – working during college and for two years after college.  He noted that GWES/MN is leading this project (Please also see GAP case study. GAP has completed several homes, including one on a lot near the school that will house three additional homes).

Tony Zahradke

* What are examples of partnerships that have make this project possible?   See picture below.  Many different groups involved.  The project began when the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans (MACV) connected with the local carpenters’ union. Together they brought in a number of other groups.

Tony explained that the partners included:

* An Architecture firm that helped with lead certification and designed the house- all pro bono.  This firm also helped with variances and permits, 

* 3M donated house wrap and trainings with students. 3M also showed students how to apply this.

* Pella discounted cost of windows and did a training on how to install them.

* LP Smartside discounted siding and provided training on how to install.

* Plumbing, HVAC and electrical contractors have been willing to have students help them.

* Renewal by Anderson, which has has donated windows.


What advice would you give to other people considering creating a program to teach construction skills as they build for low-income people or people experiencing homeless? 

Sean urged: Take it one day at a time, continually work on it little by little.  Recognize that working with young people and a variety of partners means that the project will not move as quickly as people might sometimes like.

Tony pointed out: Have the right staff, the right on-site person to serve as instructor.  Find a person who is mission driven.  Recognize that the teacher can make more money elsewhere. Sean and Becky agreed:  It’s critical to have a good instructor who works well with individuals


What that you’ve done would you strongly encourage others to do? 

Sean and Becky have found that:

  • A good instructor who works well with students is critical.
  • It’s valuable to have a separate, strong project manager to oversee project so the teacher does not have to do this. (Please see Hutchinson case study for a similar view)
  • A good project manager can address the other priorities of the project as needed – picking up supplies; partnership with general manager and/or insuring the subcontractors are working on schedule, not holding up other work,
  • Tony suggested:
    • Don’t expect to build a house and make money – break even is great.
    • Students will make mistakes.
    • Make sure you have enough money so you can finish the project.

 Are there any mistakes or unexpected negative outcomes that, if possible, people should try to avoid?

 Becky and Sean suggest:

  • Separate roles of project manager & instructor
  • Have a truck and trailer available for projects is a necessary investment. 
  • Recognize that scheduling requires a lot of communication. General Contractor needs to see this as a win-win.  The GC must recognize that they are training a future workforce.  The GC needs to be ready to bring in others to fill in gaps, in between training cohorts and/or time off the project for instructor training, meetings, etc.,
  • Help participants understand that they are building something that others will be able to use.  Participants really love the idea that they are creating something like these apartments for vets. They’re proud to be able to contribute to the need for housing.
  • Don’t skip on building a fully structured team to support your efforts (instructors, project manager, career navigators, job developers).

Recognizing it varies from home to home, what are the approximate budgets for the homebuilding projects? 

Sean explained that the average is about $200/square foot. This project probably will cost $750,000-$800,000. 

Student comments:

Gap students who were interviewed explained:

Genesis Lopez, 20: “I’m participating because this will lead to good job opportunities.  The teacher is a good person.  He’s very understanding.”

 Say Moo, 22   I’m doing this because I want to learn more about jobs in construction.

Jeannie, a recent graduate of GESMN Construction Training Program:

“All my efforts were not without a lot of hard work and dedication to my hands-on training. “The construction industry needs more women; they need more underrepresented employees. That was really one of the biggest reasons why I wanted to explore this opportunity because I knew there were hundreds, thousands of jobs that needed to get filled. The construction industry, like most industries, prospect in a very fixed pool of resources and if we can expand the resources and help employers reach out to other demographics then they’ll have no problem filling jobs with dedicated and experienced employees.”

“It’s been a huge learning curve for me, but the construction skills I learned with the [GESMN’s] training program was absolutely instrumental in preparing me for measuring, cutting and assembling PVC pipes to get them into each frame properly.”


Anything else you’d like educators/community members to know? 

Tony suggests: Work with your county & city to obtain tax forfeited homes.  This saves an enormous amount. This process can take years.  Get the right staff.

Money without the right staff is meaningless. Having your own site is invaluable. GAP has been able to buy vacant lots.  GAP constructed one home on it and will be building two more (Please see GAP case study)

Habitat for Humanity may have only students doing one thing – we want students to have a full experience.

Tony noted that unions have been great.  Plumbing unions will do plumbing at our next house.  He stressed that the partnership has to be beneficial to each partner.

Sean and Becky explained that:

  • GESMN has a YouthBuild program for youth ages 16-24 years providing carpentry training, academic support, and leadership development. Students also receive training and certification in OSHA-10 and MNDOT Flagger certification. Youth apply their carpentry skills and build low-income housing with Twin Cities Habitat Humanity.
  • This 6-month program helps youth develop employment readiness skills to secure jobs, engage in service projects, prepare for high school completion, and connect to the community. After program completion there is one year of close follow-up of graduates by staff to ensure long-term success.
  • This program serves around 25 youth annually who are fully disconnected and not enrolled in a traditional high school.
  • GESMN’s Construction Training program for ages 18+ is 12 weeks/300-hour hands-on construction fundamentals course concentrating on OSHA-10 certification, instrument and tool use, math measurement systems, blueprint review, framing, insulation, drywall, sheathing, roofing and deconstruction, and other core skills. Participants are exposed to and can explore career paths in carpentry and earn a training wage in the second half of class as they work at local project Upon program completion, participants additionally earn 36 continuing education units and college credit at Saint Paul College.
  • They serve mostly individuals who live below the poverty level (low-income). One of the entrance criteria is that participants in this program must have a GED, with a goal of employment within construction trades. This program serves 60-70 people a year.  
  • GESMN pays participants a training wage for the physical work portion of the program, this wage is usually covered by a partner contract for the work performed.
  • GESMN is always looking for projects that have a scope of work that matches the training program components of the second 6 weeks of their program where participants physically work on homes in the community. They have also partnered with Ramsey County to rehab a historically significant building.

For further information, please contact:

Becky Brink Ray:

Sean Hart: